A Plea to the Box-Score Makers: Remove Plus-Minus for Single Games

Single-game plus-minus is often close to useless, which is why analytics folks have attempted to come up with better plus-minus indicators, such as ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM). Real plus-minus attempts to tease apart the value of each player’s defensive plus-minus and offensive plus-minus in order to better measure the two-way effectiveness of each player. I just learned that Khris Middleton, of Milwaukee, is the 8th-most effective defensive player in the NBA this year, according to Real Plus-Minus. I appreciate the fact that defensive impact is being measured in ways that it never was before. Milwaukee’s defense has been far better than anyone could have predicted this year, and they’re doing it all without Larry Sanders, which is amazing. Everyone knows about Giannis’ defense. But not many know about Middleton.

Still, I want to bring attention back to the single box score and the fact that plus-minus should not have it’s own column in that sacred space. (It’s hilarious to see, but the modern newspaper, at least the San Francisco Chronicle, box scores still keep three-pointers below the chart-area of the box score. Old habits…)

One more drop in the overflowing river of plus-minus misleading river: Derrick Williams of Sacramento recently pulled off a miraculous feat, which adds one more piece of evidence that focusing on single-game plus/minus stats is often misleading.

Williams’ line: 23 minutes, shooting 1 of 5 from the field, collecting 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 steal, and 1 turnover. His plus/minus for the game: +20.

Williams benefited from Ben McLemore’s early 4th quarter spark and from happening to match-up against a very weak and rusty Charlotte bench that included the ghost of Jason Maxiell, the mystery man Lance Stephenson, and a first-game back Kemba Walker (2 of 9).

While Williams ended with a plus-20, Gerald Henderson of Charlotte finished with a minus-14 in his 34 minutes of game action. Henderson finished with 17 points (7 of 16), 11 assists and 6 rebounds, and a single turnover. Of course, Henderson was surrounded by offensively inept players and an extremely rusty Walker.

There are too many factors in a single game to give us one number that tells a real story. Take the plus-minus stat and toss it in the garbage. Real plus-minus does a better job, but it’s still too simplistic to rely on.

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Young Celtics Forcing Their Way Into Contention With Big Wins over Memphis and Indiana

Don’t look now, but the Boston Celtics are gaining steam. One thing working to their advantage: their own record. Often overlooked in March and early April are teams that have been busy shuffling their roster all season (and whose record shows them to be mediocre at best).

Most of the time, the better teams in the NBA will beat those up-and-down-and-all-over teams. Most of the time, those teams are not competing for a playoff spot and use the post-trade deadline months as an experimental time to try and develop younger players and worry less about wins. Many have gone the tanking route and been comfortable seeing the losses pile up, with the emphasis on the future success of the team, through the lottery and developing their own talent. Celtics GM Danny Ainge has put coach Brad Stevens in a decent position. Instead of taking any offer for Brandon Bass and waiting on a player like Isaiah Thomas, Ainge made a move geared toward the future that helps the team now. Thomas is a creator, a brilliant finisher at the rim, and a 4th quarter assassin. The Celtics had many useful parts before Isaiah, but they couldn’t do any of these three things well. Now they can.

These Celtics spent the first 25 games showcasing their assets (Rondo, Green, etc.) and then the next 25 games, flipping some of the acquired players (Brandon Wright to Phoenix, Tayshaun Prince to Detroit), and developing others (Jae Crowder), and then, in mid-February, as the trade deadline approached, they brought in Isaiah Thomas as a genuine building block for the future (under contract for three more years on a very modest deal). In addition to bringing in Thomas, players like Brandon Bass and Evan Turner are still here, and can breathe a bit more easily, knowing they will be Celtics for at least this season (Turner is under contract next year as well).

One of the benefits of being in the Eastern Conference (and there are many) is that hovering around 10-games under .500 after 55 games means you are not completely out of the playoff race.

After beating the red-hot Pacers (winners of seven straight heading into Saturday night’s game), the Celtics are 29-36. According to John Hollinger’s NBA Playoff odds, they are now the slight favorites to finish in the East’s 8th and final playoff spot.

Indiana 30-35, 78.6%

Boston 29-36, 43%

Charlotte 29-35, 41%

Miami 29-36, 31.1%

The Celtics have won 9 of their last 12. With the infusion of instant offense maestro Isaiah Thomas, the team is playing with a new edge. There is a feisty side to this bunch that Thomas spearheads with his fearless drives to the paint, which is also highlighted by Jae Crowder (Draymond-lite) deflecting passes, and causing confusion with his energy and quick hands, the two-handed dunks of Brandon Bass, given extra minutes with the absence of power forward Jared Sullinger. The bench is active and effective, with new additions Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome extending defenses with their shooting ability and making things messy with their defensive intensity. When Thomas went down with a badly bruised lower back (missed last three games), Phil Pressey jumped into the fray and made his presence felt against Orlando (10 pts, 10 ast, 4 reb in 27 min) and added some punch against Indiana. Everyone is contributing and we are beginning to see the fire that Brad Stevens has been forced to keep under wraps for his first 140 or so games as an NBA coach. That fire was kept hidden in order to preserve his sanity and take the long-term approach. He used the word “process” in nearly every state-of-the-team interview last year.

Brad Stevens wants these Celtics to make the playoffs more than you realize.

Brad Stevens wants these Celtics to make the playoffs more than you realize.

After a lackluster start to Friday night’s game against Orlando (the athleticism of Payton and Oladipo have been issues all year long for Boston’s guards), Stevens apparently lit into the team at halftime. In addition to discussing how unacceptable their performance was, he threatened no food on the plane to Indiana (Saturday night’s opponent). This kind of thing sounds hilarious and ridiculous, but it gets at something bigger: Stevens has kept his competitiveness in check out of necessity so far. That doesn’t mean he will remain so even-keeled and steady throughout his NBA coaching career. At Butler, it was clear that Stevens knew how to motivate his players, but it was also clear he could wear his heart on his sleeve. He’ll be doing that in the best way possible over the next 15 games and hopefully into the playoffs. The players will feed off of his energy, just like he is feeding off of these wins and Isaiah Thomas’ “hop on my back, even if it may be bruised…” mentality. Boston fans will be given a real glimpse into the future of the Celtics and the rumors of Stevens departing for Indiana or Duke or wherever else rumor-mill-makers decide will die down completely. When I mentioned to my friend Eric that we may have to watch many Celtics games together in April, he replied, “This is getting kind of serious.”

You’ll hear coaches, especially Popovich, Thibodeau, Doc Rivers and even former-Warriors coach Mark Jackson refer to playing with “force.” They refer to defense as a matter of will-power and tenacity. This means getting the “50/50″ balls, deflecting passes, running opponents off of the three-point line even when your legs are heavy. It is easy to talk about playing with “force.” It is harder to bring that energy every game for 82 regular season games. In fact, coaches differ in how to best use their players in order to get that maximum energy at the right times. Popovich (and now Kerr and others) seems to fully realize that the schedule will screw each team a few times a year (forget 5 games in 7 days, how about 3 games in 4 days?). Kerr just wrote back to disgruntled Nuggets fans who were understandably miffed that they’d driven from South Dakota to Denver, paid a shitload of money, and then saw the Warriors B-team.

Thibodeau has long been criticized for running his players into the ground, coaxing more regular season wins at the expense of fresher legs in April and May. This criticism should probably be extended beyond Thibs, as the Bulls training staff seem to diagnose injuries in the “if you can walk, you can play” fashion. It may be extended even to the city of Chicago, where fans seem to prize toughness over long-term health (insert sociological/psychological city data here). Joakim Noah’s knees will likely never be the same. Should we blame Thibodeau for putting too much emphasis on the regular season, or should we consider that forcing Joakim Noah to sit out a game might be more damaging to a team’s psyche (Noah plays with the same intensity KG, Draymond and Westbrook all play with).

Jae Crowder never stops moving. Every team needs a Jae Crowder.

Jae Crowder never stops moving. Every team needs a Jae Crowder.

These Celtics are playing with force. Jae Crowder and Brandon Bass seem to bring it every night. Isaiah has it. Marcus Smart and Avery both have it, even though Marcus is hitting the rookie wall (last 20 games: 32% from field, 26% from deep). There is no way rookies can physically prepare for the 82-game grind, and usually hit that wall around the All-Star break, if they’re actually given big minutes. It’s been deeply rewarding to watch these Celtics take on this new identity. Regardless of the outcome this year, all Celtics fans should be optimistic. Let’s hope Isaiah’s tailbone heals quickly.

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Surprise C’s: With 19 Games Left, Celtics Feeling Rejuvenated

I have been meaning to watch the Hawks-Cavs game since they played last Friday. Today is Wednesday (now it’s Thursday, as I didn’t have time to finish this on Wednesday, alas). I’ve managed to avoid finding out who won the game for the past five (now six) days. Hooray for me and the little games I play with myself.

The basketball season is long. Life is big and filled with more than a regular season basketball game between two teams that are not your favorite team (Boston) or Western-Conference-adopted-team (Golden State, and yes, I adopted them four or five years ago, not this year). Still…these Hawks have clawed their way into my basketball heart this season. As a birthday present, my wife is I really want to see them send a message to the Cavs before the playoffs start. I’ll end up watching that game on Friday morning. I’ll fast forward through the free-throws. I’ll mute the endless organ music that accompanies every Hawks possession. Then the game will end. I will press, “delete,” and, hopefully, I will feel more confident about the Hawks chances in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

***

But the first question is:

Who will they play in round one?

The six teams currently ranked 7th-12th in the standings are busy elbowing, limping and smack-talking each other into oblivion. Will my beloved Celtics find a way to sneak into that 8th spot and become Atlanta’s playoff opponent in mid-April?

The post-Isaiah-trade Celtics are certainly a feisty and exciting bunch. Since the trade deadline, which coincided with Jared Sullinger’s season-ending foot injury, Brandon Bass has been able to relax and has thrived in an elevated role. Isaiah is doing exactly what Ainge and Stevens envisioned: sparking the offense, especially the reserves, and leading the team in tight 4th quarter situations. Jae Crowder is a versatile defender, bringing great energy and tempo. European imports (by way of Detroit) Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome have shown flashes. Everyone, yes everyone, is contributing. Reminds you of Stevens’ Butler teams, doesn’t it?

During the 4th Quarter at Miami, I found myself getting anxious. These wins actually mean something. The end result may not be a championship for this team, but that’s fine with me. Getting to 35 or 37 wins is meaningful when you’re building something. Having a chance to dip your collective toes in the playoff pool means something to each of these players. Doesn’t matter if it ends up being four games or six games. (I can’t delude myself into thinking they can force a 7th game against Atlanta, much less win the series). With a few minutes left, Isaiah penetrated, twisting in mid-air, and releasing the ball over the outstretched arms of Chris Anderson (I think), but landed awkwardly on his back and side. He stayed down. We all held our breath. Thomas stayed on the court, but was in obvious distress. The next two possessions, my eyes stayed focused on him as he attempted to stay with his defender, limping around the court. Isaiah is the spark plug. The Celtics offense desperately needs him over these last 19 games. As of today (March 12), he is doubtful for Friday night and Saturday night.

EASTERN CONFERENCE SWAMP RACE (for 7th and 8th)

  • 7th. Indiana Pacers (29-34). Hollinger odds: 87.6%
  • 8th. Miami Heat (29-35). 40.4%
  • 9th. Charlotte Hornets (28-35). 33.1%
  • 10th. Boston Celtics (27-36): 30.3%
  • 11th. Brooklyn Nets (25-38): 7.5%

ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg’s write-up after last night’s last-minute victory over Memphis was excellent in explaining Brad Stevens’ after-time-out play-calling and how efficient these Celtics have become at executing under pressure. As the Celtics near the final stretch of this season, they are carving out an identity and a future path. It is wonderful to see. Without a doubt, this bodes well for our future Celtics.

Consider this: Since Jan. 22, the night Turner hit a late 3-pointer to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and seemingly lit the fuse on the Celtics’ recent turnaround, Boston is averaging 0.947 points per play in after-timeout situations, according to Synergy Sports play-type data. If maintained, that number would rank the team third in the league behind only the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers (led by Boston’s former Czar of the Whiteboard, Doc Rivers).

For the season, the Celtics rank sixth overall in ATO efficiency at 0.906 points per play, according to Synergy data. The five teams in front of Boston all currently project as playoff squads, which speaks to the value of crisp execution coming out of timeouts (especially when you consider that 16.2 percent of the Celtics’ total plays this season have come in those situations).

Boston is 14-10 in its past 24 games, and 7-3 in its past 10. What’s more, 16 of those previous 24 games have seen the Celtics within five points of their opponents in the final five minutes, and Boston owns a 9-7 mark in those games. (That .563 winning percentage ranks the Celtics in the top 10 among all NBA teams in clutch games during that span.)

Remaining Schedule

Date, Opponent, record

(Last 10), Health Factor: (A=Perfect health; F=Horribly injured),

Winnability: (out of 100%)

Fri, 3/13 vs. ORL (21-45)

(4-6), HF: C. Vucevic (ankle), Fournier (hip).

W: 70% Unlikely to see Isaiah. Magic played well vs BOS in ORL last week.

Sat, 3/14 @ IND (29-34)

(9-1), HF: B. Hibbert (elbow), Miles (foot), George won’t return on 3/14 “still a way’s away.”

W: 35% Hot Indy team, 2nd of B2B. Away game. Unlikely to see Isaiah.

Mon, 3/16 vs. PHI (14-50)

(2-8), HF: doesn’t matter until Embiid returns and they start trying to win games.

W: 85%. 3rd game in 4 days prevents it from being 95%.

Wed, 3/18 @ OKC (35-29)

(6-4), HF: C. Durant not expected back for 1-2 weeks from yesterday, which puts him on track for the weekend after this game.

W: 45%. Even without Durant, the Thunder have the otherworldly Westbrook, decent depth, and a raucous home crowd. Much will depend on C’s health (Bradley and Thomas), Zeller’s ability to thwart Kanter, and all C’s rebounders keeping Ibaka from destroying us.

Further into March

Fri, 3/20 @ SA

Sun, 3/22 vs DET

Mon, 3/23 @ BKN

Wed, 3/25 vs MIA

Fri, 3/27 @ NYK

***

It’s been a topsy-turvy season. The “Why not us?” element runs deep with this bunch. A team full of quality role players are truly pulling for each other and the energy they play with is intoxicating. If health permits….

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